First novel carried by age-old questions

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 2, 2014

SALISBURY — So there’s “No Such Thing as a Cherokee Princess” and there’s no such thing as happily ever after.
There is a cute, freckled redhead, an Indigenous American with long black hair and a ton of obstacles to love in Barrie Miller Kirby’s novel, “No Such Thing as a Cherokee Princess.”
I met Barrie at a writing workshop at the Farm at Weathers Creek, and heard a sample of her writing read aloud. I thought she had promise. This new book shows it. It’s not perfect, but it kept me reading.
The author throws together a lily-white Presbyterian, slightly naive college student and a grieving, introverted Indigenous American. David Graham watches Susan McAllister as she works at a church day care across the street from his apartment. He loans her some children’s books to read to her group and she hesitantly returns them, going into his apartment while warnings about strange men and what can happen behind closed doors dance in her head.
Nothing happens, but Susan remains guarded, so when David invites her for coffee at Mama Java, she’s even worried about that.
Susan bites her bottom lip a lot — it’s a wonder it survives this novel. She quickly learns she knows virtually nothing about the Cherokee, the Trail of Tears or the exodus to Oklahoma, where David is from.
She also doesn’t know why she goes back for coffee the next time, although David is extremely hot, according to Susan’s roommate, Kelly. Susan’s not used to thinking about that kind of thing. She has led a chaste life and has little dating experience or experience of much outside the world of UNC Chapel Hill and Charlotte her hometown.
Kirby adds a nice touch that gives the couple some common ground. Susan’s heritage is Scottish, and David, with a name like Graham, shares the same heritage. Susan’s grandfather is a minister living in Montreat, home of Billy Graham.
Susan and David’s tentative courtship takes up most of the book.
Then just as you think the book is winding up, a horrible thing happens to Susan, compounded by shocking news, and all seems lost.
She feels God is punishing her for decisions she’s made. She blames herself, and her very devoted David now seems like an albatross to her.
A lot has to happen for this book to have the kind of ending it seems destined for. And Kirby crams a lot into the last 62 pages. She’s got to create catharsis for Susan and David. She’s got to answer that nagging question, “Why is God punishing me?” That’s a question for the ages. How many times have humans asked it, have skeptics thrown it at believers, questioning their faith? And how does of person of faith explain it? Moreover, how does Kirby, a member of the clergy herself, explain it?
The real meat of the book lies in those 62 pages. Kirby has raised all the issues that will lead up to it, but this is the first time it’s directly addressed.
I kept reading the book because I knew something had to happen to this oddly-matched pair. David is by far the wiser, having experienced so much more in life than your average 28-year-old. He deals with enormous, life-changing issues, too, things he has refused to face and work through. Susan encourages and guides him as best she can as a 21-year-old college student who has not had any experience beyond leaving home for college.
Because David is so circumspect, the reader may feel he remains unknown throughout the book. We see he is kind, thoughtful, proud of his history and devoted to those he loves. But we don’t know much about how he thinks.
What does he see in Susan beyond pale skin and bright hair? Is it the joy of untested youth? Is it her lack of guile? Perhaps he sees her as a fresh start — without much baggage.
“No Such Thing as a Cherokee Princess” has insights, history, moral dilemmas, tragedy. It needs a little more flesh and blood, more deep water. Nevertheless, it reads quickly and does leave the reader with a number of complex questions.
Kirby has included 18 questions for discussion at the end, so the book is intended to invoke deeper thought.
The author has talent. It will be interesting to watch it grow.
Kirby will sign books on Friday, March 7, 5-8 p.m. at Literary Bookpost, 110 S. Main St.